The college admissions essay is not easy to get right. You’ve got to strike a perfect balance of being personal but not too personal, prepared but not arrogant, passionate but not fake, intelligent but not naïve.
Many students think they have the grades and résumés to get into Ivy League schools and are surprised to find they’ve been rejected. “Why?” they ask. Perhaps they weren’t able to craft a winning personal statement.
As an applicant, this is your main chance to prove you’re more than just grades, test scores, and items on a résumé. Seeking professional help can be a very wise investment. If you’re going it alone, though, here are 13 terrible mistakes people make in their college application essays. Seek to avoid them!
(By the way, this list applies perfectly to college scholarship essays as well!)
1) They’re clichéd
This is a difficult one to avoid—because really: how unique are you? If it’s been done before, don’t do it—or do it much, much better. Think about how many essays college admissions officers have read about how winning isn’t everything, how teamwork matters, that the journey is more important than the destination, that community service builds character. College isn’t a pageant. Originality goes a long way in the personal essay.
2) They’re not personal enough
If the college admissions officer walks away from your essay having learned nothing new about you, it wasn’t personal enough. The essay should offer insight into your character and personality—it should look like only you could have written it.
3) They’re too personal
On the other side of the coin, some college application essays take the word “personal” to the extreme. Don’t overshare: be tasteful. Use good judgment, common sense, and tact when deciding what to write about. Things that are too graphic or intense for the admissions committee might leave a bad taste in their mouths. Don’t be lurid. Don’t seek pity. Don’t treat the personal essay as a confessional.
4) They contain spelling and grammar errors
I’d like to say that this goes without saying, but I just said it. You’d be surprised how many students unwittingly submit poorly-written, badly-structured, redundant, misspelled, amateur essays—even to Ivy League schools. You may think you’re a good writer—but compared to other applicants, how good are you, really? Professional help can pay dividends, here. Get one or two people with English degrees to workshop your essay.
5) They’re trying too hard to be clever or cute
This reeks of amateurism. Your essay should not be a piece of stand-up comedy, should not be a performance poem, should not be written in the second-person tense, should not contain vast unbroken swaths of alliteration. No gimmicks, no jokes, and no satire.
6) They’re arrogant or naïve
Sound like you have everything figured out in your essay? The admissions committee will think you’re naïve. You’ve always wanted to be a doctor/lawyer/engineer ever since you were a baby, and you’re going to go to Harvard and Princeton and Yale to get several degrees, earn a bunch of money, retire early, and start a charity to support whatever the cause of the day is? Don’t be so sure. College is a time to be open, to explore, to discover. Demonstrate passion, but don’t be arrogant and don’t give the admissions committee reason to brand you naïve.
7) They’re controversial
Don’t write about hot-button social issues like abortion, politics, religion—you get the picture. College is definitely not a time to hide from controversial beliefs and discussions, but the college admissions officer reading your essay might have a visceral reaction against your opinions. Don’t let your beliefs prevent you from gaining admission. Gain admission and then broadcast your beliefs.
8) They get the school’s name wrong
Oops. You sent your Harvard essay to Yale. Rejection. You misspelled the college’s name. Rejection. You named a faculty member from Johns Hopkins in your U. Chicago essay. Rejection.
9) They’re too broad
Don’t let your essay look like a one-size-fits-all copy-and-paste platitudinous screed. Show interest in the school to which you’re applying. Demonstrate that you’ve done your research. Articulate why that specific school, and no other, is the right fit for you. Perhaps research programs you’re interested in, find out what the faculty have written and done, and so on. If you’ve done your homework, the college admissions team will take you very seriously.
10) They regurgitate the résumé
The personal essay is not the place for you to tell people, once again, how you juggled band, theatre, volleyball, Leo Club, Spanish Club, French Club, lacrosse, and the onerous burden of being National Honor Society Secretary, all while volunteering at a soup kitchen and/or retirement community and maintaining a 3-point-whatever GPA. Let your résumé do your résumé’s work, and let your personal essay do your personal essay’s work.
11) They feel fake
Don’t come across as a phony. College admissions officers like essays that demonstrate grit, complexity, and character—ones that show, perhaps, that you’re not perfect and you don’t have everything figured out. The essay should paint you as a fully-rounded, three-dimensional human being with a personality—not a broad-stroked, self-parodying caricature obsessed with academics and humanitarianism.
12) They don’t answer the prompt
If you can’t follow directions, why should you be granted admission?
13) They’re too short or too long
Show respect for the situation and the college admissions committee’s time. If your essay is too short, it sends the message that you don’t have much to say and don’t care. If it’s too long, it shows that you’re arrogant and have no respect for the committee’s time. Aim for the precise word count, or a word count directly in the middle of their suggested range.
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Additional Resources: “Winning College Scholarships for High Schoolers” Video Course